I'm rapidly approaching a milestone birthday and for several months have seriously pondered the concept of “growing older. ”No, not those age-old, oh-so-tired clichés. You know the ones, “use it or lose it,” “getting old is not for sissies,” and those who vow, “to go kicking and screaming into old age.” I admit I've been guilty of using the last one on more than one occasion.
Recently, actually serendipitously, I came across Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life by Anna Quindlen. A quote by Søren Kierkegaard quickly sets the tone of her book, “Life must be lived forward but understood backward.”
Like Quindlen, who looks back over her life in her latest book, I've been looking back over the last three years where I've weathered a few life-changing events. Some good, some not so good. In that time I've learned a lot about myself and about life.
Quindlen writes: Life is haphazard. We plan, and then we deal when plans go awry. Control is an illusion; best intentions are the best we can do. I remember imagining that I could chart a course that would take me from one place to another. I thought I had a handle on my future. But the future, it turns out, is not a tote bag.
It often seems, looking back, that the unexpected comes to define us, the paths we didn’t see coming and may have wandered down by mistake. The older we get the more willing we are to follow those, to surprise ourselves. After all, all we can do is fail, and failure loses so much of its sting over time. We not only know how to fall, we know how to get up. We’ve done it so often. This is an invaluable lesson because we’re often told, “failure is not an option.” Of course it's an option!! Failure teaches us what won't work so we can move on to find what will.
I recently built my first website from scratch for a local church. While I was eager to take on this project, I had no idea how I was going to do it but deep down I heard a voice say, calmly and with conviction, "You can do this." If this opportunity had occurred fifteen or twenty years ago I would've been consumed by fear and worry.
Again, Quindlen writes: Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said that it was important to do something every day that scared you, and it’s a pretty good piece of advice. But it’s more challenging when you’re older because you’re afraid of fewer things. (So very true.) Perhaps instead of scaring ourselves we need to surprise ourselves every day. We are, after all, always a work in progress.(Emphasis mine. We so often forget this) There were things I hadn’t done, didn’t know, couldn’t imagine at fifty that have all come true in the last decade. There must be such things in the decades to come as well. They arrive not because of the engraved invitations of careful planning but through happy happenstance, doodles on the to-do list of life. This is happening to me right now and I’m loving and enjoying, every minute of it! I can’t wait to see what happens next!!
So much of our knee-jerk negative response to aging is a societal construct. It’s yet another version of the conflict that shapes, sometimes deforms, our lives, the conflict between what we really want and what we’re told we ought to desire. We are supposed to think that young is better. But we know deep inside, in the ways that count, that better is now.
As a result, I prefer "growing older" to "getting older." Let's face it, we're all "getting" older but some of us aren't "growing" older. By this I mean we're not trying, learning or doing new things. My Dad died of cancer at 47 and my Mom has Alzheimer's and doesn't know who I am anymore. The probability of me contracting and or dying of either or both of these diseases is high. But for now, and that's all we ever have, I'm working hard to stay healthy and be active for as long as I can.
Quindlen has been accused of painting a rosy picture of “growing older.” But she doesn’t. Not at all. Granted we all have health and life issues, some more so than others but old age doesn’t have to be the elephant in the room society would have us believe. While most of us dread, if not cringe, the thought of getting older, we will all approach it differently.
As I approach this milestone birthday I find I’ve mellowed and when people ask me how I am, I often reply, "I'm vertical and that's a good thing."
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life is full of wisdom born of a life filled with twists and turns. I leave you with one last gerontological nugget from her book: That’s the hallmark of aging, too, that we learn to go deeper, in our friendships, in our family life, in our reflections on how we live and how we face the future. The reason we develop an equanimity about our lives and ourselves is that we have gone deep into what has real meaning.
Finally, "breathe" and keep in mind what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “life is a journey, not a destination.”